China uses a mobile app for surveillance purposes
The app demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities as suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization.
China’s government hides behind complex terminologies like “intelligent communities” to keep a close eye on its citizens. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled China’s Algorithms of Repression’: Reverse Engineering a Xinjiang Police Mass Surveillance App shows that authorities are using a mobile app to carry out mass surveillance, particularly in the Xinjiang region.
Authorities justify mass surveillance by claiming the goal is to fight terrorism. With a simple google translation, the “strike hard campaign” means:
But has this campaign paved the way for social control in Xinjiang?
Xinjiang in northwest China is home to ethnic minority groups such as the Turkic Uighurs. There has been mass arbitrary detention of Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region. The government calls such centres “vocational camps” or “political educational camps”.
What is happening in Xinjiang?
According to the HRW report, there is a mobile application that the police and officials use to communicate with a central monitoring system called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). The IJOP is one of the main systems that Chinese authorities use for mass surveillance among others.
Speaking to Asiaville, Anurag Vishwanathan, Singapore based independent Writer and Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi said, “Xinjiang is China’s Kashmir.” She added, “There is high movement of troops and the situation is on the edge.”
Anurag added that Xinjiang’s demography has drastically changed due to China’s Social Credit System (SCS). This system claims to rate individuals and organisations based on trustworthiness and goes hand-in-hand with the Communist Party’s (CCP) principle: “Once unworthy, always restricted”.
In what way is the IJOP system involved here? It involves collecting personal information, reporting on activities that the systems deem suspicious, and prompting investigations that it considers problematic. The report said, “The IJOP app demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities as suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization.”
The James Foundation reported on China’s domestic security spending. It showed that in Xinjiang, there was a 92.8 percent increase in domestic security spending. It has increased from USD 4.7 billion in 2016 to USD 57.95 billion in 2017. This includes other surveillance methods such as CCTV cameras—with facial recognition and infrared capabilities—and “wifi sniffers” that collect the unique identifying addresses of mobile devices in a particular network.
The IJOP application is multi-functional. It collects data, files reports, and prompts investigative missions to the police. But this is not all. The app relies on a unified communication system, geolocation and map functions, search functions, facial recognition function, and wifi defection systems.
Image source: HRW
The IJOP app allows officials to search for information and find people using their name, ID number, household number, and building address.
“The Xinjiang region is a border region between China and Central Asia,” said Anurag. The app contains information from how much electricity was used by a household to what relationships an individual maintains. The system contains a massive dataset of personal information and of police behaviour and movements in Xinjiang.
An NYT article revealed that Chinese start-ups scanned 5,00,000 faces in a month to track if members belonged to the Uighurs community. This is the first example of a government using AI for racial profiling. Such surveillance mechanisms are extensively used to monitor Muslim minority groups in China.
Any interference with the right to privacy, including the collection, retention, and use of an individual’s personal data must have a necessary aim. While it claims it is for safety purposes, the aim is never clear. Current Chinese laws do not meet international privacy standards and do not provide meaningful protections against possible unlawful government surveillance.